The demographic-defying appeal of Lady Gaga was evident by the assortment of fans that flocked to the Susquehanna Bank Center to catch the Camden stop of her Monster Ball Tour. Although the crowd skewed towards the younger end of the spectrum, that didn’t stop people of all ages and walks of life from turning out. Teens, college-age fashionistas of both genders, glam boys and drag queens of all ages, and everyone else in between comprised the collective body of fans dressed in their most glimmering finery, allowing their freak flags to fly high, as per the mandate of Lady Gaga herself.
Having touted her Monster Ball as a place where fans could unleash their truest, freakiest selves in a song-strew safe haven, the legions of “Little Monsters” (as she affectionately addressed her fans throughout the night) more than took Lady Gaga up on her offer. I couldn’t help but admire the papier-mâché headdresses that were DIY replicas modeled after those of Gaga’s video alter egos—and pity the people who sat behind their wearers. Sequins, body glitter and sunglasses slathered in Swarovski were the order of the evening, as were blonde wigs paying homage to Lady Gaga’s various hairstyles.
Kicking things off were Semi Precious Weapons, a neo-glam rock band in the vein of the New York Dolls. Gangly lead singer Justin Tranter channeled his glammiest Iggy Pop and shimmied across the stage, shaking the lamé-clad goods like he just crawled in off the set of Velvet Goldmine. The group’s album was financed by Tranter’s own line of jewelry that he has been designing and marketing to upscale and mall retailers alike for the past several years.
Semi Precious Weapons’ set was characterized by raw, electric punk rock with a bitchy, poverty-stricken yet materialistic edge and outrageous stage antics. Tranter performed a burlesque striptease onstage, slipping out of a gold beaded number and into a slinky silver one before seamlessly launching back into the set. Bassist Cole Whittle even managed to perform a headstand while playing, not missing a note. The group did a great job revving up the crowd and kicked out an impressive, high-energy set with a modern, yet throwback flair.
The second opening act of the night was Kanye West protégée Kid Cudi. Scratching away at turntables and prowling the stage set to his own ambient hip-hop stylings, Kid Cudi garnered a bigger reaction from the crowd than Semi Precious Weapons. (While both hail from two distinctly different genres and can’t really be compared, I’d give the nod to Semi Precious Weapons for putting on a better, more entertaining stage show). Considering most of the crowd was a tad too young to remember or get into the golden age of glam rock, Kid Cudi’s trippy vibe held considerably more appeal. The venue felt like a giant rave hall with flashing lights and mellow beats pulsing through the crowd. Two female teenage Kid Cudi fans in particular were so moved by his music that they proceeded to spark up a spliff, deftly concealing it from venue security who attempted to put the kibosh on their buzz to no avail.
Nearly an hour later, Lady Gaga finally took the stage, the layover possibly owed to the amount of time it probably took to configure her elaborate stage set—the collaborative effort of Lady Gaga and her Haus of Gaga production team.
The Susquehanna Bank Center stage was made to look like a gigantic picture frame. Aided by an immense array of visuals projected onto the stage, the space appeared wider and deeper than it really was. The small troupe of dancers accompanying Lady Gaga were choreographed in such a way that they filled the main cube of the stage, contributing to the overall effect and adding extra “oomph” with their crisp dance moves as both an ensemble as well as showcasing individual skills, including crab-walking backwards and serving as a sexed-up mobile platform for the songstress.
The end result was like the audience was looking inside an image-loaded cube with the visuals enhancing each song, transforming the stage from a glitzy rendering of Dante’s Inferno to a sparse, smoky cabaret, among other thematic backdrops.
The visual changes were used to signify the Monster Ball’s various “movements”, including dance-heavy numbers and even an acoustic portion of the set. For that segment, Lady Gaga sat down at a piano in the middle of a stark stage and sang pared down versions of her new ballad, “Speechless” and “Poker Face”. (Fear not, Little Monsters! She also performed “Poker Face” for a second time – this time in its full-blown, dance-tastic glory as part of the encore).
Come to think of it, there wasn’t a single song in her recorded repertoire that wasn’t included in the set. Every song from The Fame and The Fame Monster was performed live. The obvious radio hits like “Just Dance” and “Paparazzi” got their turn along with b-sides like “Boys, Boys, Boys” with its raucous sing-a-long chorus and new songs such as the twang-touched, revival-esque “Teeth”.
The stage set-up and the elaborate visuals served as a buffer between costume changes, with Lady Gaga appearing in at least seven different outfits throughout the night. The fashion quotient of Lady Gaga’s show was just as integral to the live concert as her music itself. During the show’s opener, “Dance in the Dark”, she appeared wearing a unitard with space-age armored sleeves, one side of which was covered in flashing lights like a Christmas display. The “alien” theme continued with an H.R. Geiger-style headdress and, at the show’s conclusion, a bubble-style “orbit” that made her appear positively atomic. Other get-ups were far from futuristic with Lady Gaga playing dress up as a gilded Viking warrior goddess and as a goth Rapunzel with ten-foot long ropes of braided blonde hair dragging across the stage.
For all its bombast, the show had a very personal appeal. The theme of The Monster Ball was Lady Gaga’s own fears and personal demons acted out through song and dance. Through each phase of the show, she bared her personal likes, dislikes and motivations: hating money, loving her fans and being able to perform. During the intimate setting of the acoustic portion of the show, Lady Gaga took time out to chat with her fans, regaling the New Jersey crowd with a story about the state’s own favorite son, Bruce Springsteen. While still a relative unknown on the rise playing last year’s Jingle Ball, a young girl and her friends came up to her, squealing and requesting an autograph and photo. Delighted to oblige being recognized by a young fan, Gaga found herself traipsing back to the girls’ seats to have the child’s father snap the photo. Suddenly, the tables were turned when Lady Gaga found herself in a state of fangirl ecstasy when the kids’ father was none other than Bruce Springsteen who expressed mutual admiration for Lady Gaga as a performer.
Fast-forward a little over a year later and Lady Gaga seamlessly morphed from opening act to full-fledged headliner. This wasn’t the first time I had seen Lady Gaga. Last year, I saw her open for the New Kids on the Block. Although I had never heard of her before (Yes, I just dropped the dreaded “I saw them before they were big!” card), I was mighty impressed with her live show as an opening act, and even more impressed with her singing, dancing and stage presence.
Moreover, it’s refreshing to see a talented artist capable of writing and performing her own songs. Lady Gaga has a good voice; very good, actually, when you consider she actually sings and dances her way through the vigorous live show. It’s melodic, yet powerful and it is all her. There is no lip-synching, and only some pre-canned backing vocals, which is completely forgivable. No mere pop pablum, Lady Gaga’s music manages to be fun, self-aware, introspective, and highly danceable all at once. Her love for music is evident and shows with the attention to detail in every aspect of her live show.
Although she seemed to have adopted a faux-British accent when speaking, à la Madonna, Lady Gaga lacks Madge’s pretentious air while still proving herself a legitimate heir to the dance diva throne. With Tina Turner now 70 and possibly ready to hang up her stilettos any day, Madonna paying more attention to Kabbalah and her latest mid-life boy toys, and Cher stationing herself in Vegas, there’s a distinct dearth of divas to be had. In terms of a benevolent diva successor in the years to come, Lady Gaga more than fits the bill.